Why Monitoring of the UN Convention Against Corruption Matters

Cape Town, 25 July 2012.

This post was originally published on the ISS Africa website.

The almost ten-year-old United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) has committed governments to a bold agenda in the fight against corruption. The current phase of monitoring the implementation of UNCAC through a peer Implementation Review Group (IRG) is the crucial next step in ensuring that legal promises move beyond words to real sustained action.

The first UNCAC review cycle is currently underway and South Africa is among the group of countries currently under review. Senegal and Mali form part of the IRG that will evaluate the progress South Africa has made with regard to chapter three (criminalisation and law enforcement) and chapter four (international cooperation) of the convention. This is an important initiative when considering the growing concern over corruption among the country’s citizenry. The most recent Afrobarometer Survey (Round 5, 2012) found that 40% of South Africans thought members of Parliament and councillors were corrupt. This is up from 25% four years ago (Afrobarometer Round 4, 2008).

The third IRG meeting took place in mid-June in Vienna, with a special consultation on the sidelines of the meeting with civil society organisations. The IRG meeting is an important opportunity to engage states parties on the progress of the review mechanism. Through this the IRG fulfils its commitment to the UNCAC implementation process in identifying the challenges as well as best practices presented.

A sticking point remains the fact that, outside of government delegations, ordinary citizens do not have an opportunity to review the report. This is despite the fact that while Article 63 of UNCAC requires engagement with civil society, it does not make provision for the mandatory publication and disclosure of the government self-assessment or the participation of civil society in the country visit. These limitations in upholding the values of transparency, impartiality and inclusiveness during the implementation process have the potential of undermining this process. Imagine what little confidence Africans would have had in the African Peer Review Mechanism process if only a small band of officials and politicians had access to the reports? Continued non-disclosure by governments make comparative studies very difficult, hinder the progress of anti-corruption efforts, and deeply undermine the notion that for anti-corruption efforts to be effective they must include oversight by ordinary citizens. The status quo risks entrenching a situation where corrupt regimes (including governments using tax havens in Europe and elsewhere) are merely given a slap on the wrist behind closed doors and told not to loot again.

South Africa is not unique in the manner in which corruption challenges democracy and development. Corrupt activities such as tender irregularities, misappropriation of public funds and unchecked conflicts of interests should be sufficient motivation for all sectors of society to desire the open monitoring of anti-corruption efforts. This includes an assessment of the current legislation in place to facilitate compliance with UNCAC and, more importantly, the implementation of this legislation through the application of the rule of law. The ISS has undertaken a parallel review of implementation in South Africa and it is evident that major challenges remain in reporting, record keeping and having central databases for corruption cases, all of which can aid the monitoring process. For the purposes of the review mechanism, prosecution records are imperative. However, these are by no means easily available and even the records accessed through Public Access to Information requests are so vague as to make them of little value to those monitoring the law. Of the information placed in the public domain by the National Prosecuting Authority it is clear that successful corruption prosecutions are proving difficult. During the 2010/2011 period there were 392 reported incidences of corruption of which 183 were prosecuted, with only 9 convictions. Corruption-related offences are not easy to prosecute. They involve many hours of investigative work, coupled with financial expertise and specialised courts that are not always well run or have insufficient capacity.

All of this makes public oversight extremely important as a means of ensuring accountability and as a better record of prosecutions. Information such as corruption statistics need to be easily accessible, disaggregated more accurately and categorised for ease of understanding. Access to information will allow citizens to better understand the types of corruption prevalent in society and what the State is doing to counter this. Importantly, it provides a bridge to public debate and engagement.

This can be attributed to the growing appreciation for the ‘public value’ citizens place on services they receive and the perceived achievements of government programmes. When measuring public value it is vital that these aspects are considered. Firstly, the performance of government departments tasked with service delivery is likely to correlate with the ability of law enforcement structures to improve the rate of prosecutions and convictions. Secondly, maintaining the trust of the citizenry is important in establishing State legitimacy, as government has made a commitment to uphold the values of accountability in its anti-corruption efforts. Lastly, public value needs to be maintained through greater engagement with all sectors of civil society, business and government if the implementation of this convention is to be successful. The multi-stakeholder National Anti-Corruption Forum and the multi-lateral Open Government Partnership (of which South Africa is a founding member) are platforms that could be used for such engagement.

At the recent IRG meeting in Vienna, Dr Iftekhar Zaman (Head of the Civil Society Delegation and Executive Director of Transparency International Bangladesh) in his address to the IRG suggested that by improving on time, trust and transparency the impact of this convention could be far greater. Timeous reporting on the self-assessment from government and civil society as well as greater trust between these two sectors should be established. The input of civil society should also be incorporated into the review process. Thus, in order for civil society and ordinary citizens to monitor the UNCAC review process, governments must be urged to publicly share their self-assessment reports in abiding by the principles of inclusiveness and transparency. Without this the UNCAC monitoring process risks becoming a ‘members only’ club. Surely this is what those committed to the fight against corruption should seek to challenge?